Like Clay in the Hands of the Potter: a Yirmiyahu, Pre-Yom Kippur Nach Project

October 8, 2014

To start the new year, the Frisch Nach Department decided to do something creative for our 10th grade classes, to conduct class in the Art Room.

In 10th grade, we study the Book of Jeremiah. One of the many fascinating prophecies from the book is in chapter 18 when G-d tells Jeremiah to go down to the house of a potter and watch him do his work on the potter’s wheel. Jeremiah notes how the potter constantly reworks the clay, he makes a vessel and then pushes it down again. He can rework the clay as many times as he wishes until he designs the vessel to his liking. G-d then says that this is how he relates to the house of Israel. One moment he communicates a prophecy of destruction and then if the nation does Teshuva, he can relent, so to speak, and transform this prophecy for good. Likewise it works the other way as well. G-d can give a positive prophecy and if the people change for the worse, he can transform this prophecy as well. You can learn through this chapter here and watch a beautiful video rendition of this prophecy here.

Jeremiah’s vision can lead to many discussions on the true role of the prophet not as a seer who predicts the future but as one who shapes the future. It also opens the fundamental question about whether a prophecy for good can in fact be changed. For more on this, see the Radak on Jeremiah 18 and the Malbim on Isaiah Chapter 10-11.

This prophecy has been imported into our Yom Kippur liturgy in the classic piyut which highlights the Yom Kippur evening service for Ashkenazic Jewry, כחומר ביד היוצר, Like Clay in the Hands of the Potter. This piyut creates an analogy between clay in the hands of the potter which can be expanded and contracted at will and our complete dependence on G-d. The piyut then continues with many similar analogies between us and God and a stone in the hands of a mason, iron in the hands of a blacksmith, an anchor in the hands of a seaman, glass in the hands of a glass-blower, a tapestry in the hands of a weaver, and silver in the hands of a silversmith. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Zatzal as quoted in the Artscroll Mesoras HaRav Yom Kippur Machzor says that this piyut represents the climax of the Yom Kippur evening service which focuses on the lowliness of Man and our complete dependence on G-d. You can read this piyut in Hebrew here and in English here. You can listen to a stirring rendition of this piyut here.

Both Jeremiah’s prophecy and the piyut create obvious opportunities for active learning. G-d didn’t tell Jeremiah about what it was like to be a potter. He showed him by having Jeremiah visit a potter and experience the process with his own eyes. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our students could do the same? What makes this possible at Frisch is that we are blessed to have a very creative and talented artist and potter, Mrs. Ahuva Mantell, who heads our art department.

In past years, many Nach teachers have used her skills to demonstrate the art of pottery making when teaching Jeremiah Chapter 18. You can watch a video of her pottery demonstration from my 10th grade Nach class last year below.

One reflection from my students about this demonstration last year was that it was wonderful to watch Mrs. Mantell on the potter’s wheel and even have a hand on the wheel oneself but it would have been even more meaningful if every student had the chance to form their own pottery. One other reflection on this past year was that since we did this project when we got up to the prophecy in Jeremiah in December, we were able to reference the Yom Kippur piyut but it was not that relevant since students were already looking forward to Chanukah as Yom Kippur had passed months before.

This year the entire Nach department led by Mrs. Rachel Besser, our department chair, and my fellow Nach teachers, Rabbi Jonathan Schachter, our Rosh Beit Midrash, and Mrs. Racheli Weiss, decided to remedy this by conducting a complete art project in which Mrs. Mantell not only demonstrated the Potter’s Wheel but then gave students the chance to create their own pottery as well. This involved a little bit of moving around the curriculum, skipping to chapter 18 after introducing Jeremiah in chapter 1. However, we all felt that this year was an especially fortuitous opportunity to do this since we had an entire month of school prior to Yom Kippur to introduce Jeremiah and then conduct the art project.

Many teachers also noticed connections between chapter 1 and Jeremiah’s vision in chapter 18. For example, Mrs. Racheli Weiss realized with her students that in the first chapter, Jeremiah is told that he must destroy and uproot the people and then build and plant. This same language, לִנְתוֹשׁ וְלִנְתוֹץ, וּלְהַאֲבִיד…–לִבְנוֹת, וְלִנְטוֹעַ is used in chapter 18 as well. This reflects a fundamental idea which students experienced themselves when forming their clay. The first step in the process of working with clay is the beat it down again and again. One must do this to remove any air bubbles from the clay which would cause the clay the crack later in the process when burned in the kiln. Similarly, even Jeremiah’s prophecies of destruction were all constructive in nature, לסתור על מנת לבנות.

Personally, I participated in the project with my students. As I am not an artist or a potter, I found that I kept making mistakes with my clay. I formed something, was not satisfied with the finished product, and then broke it down again to start anew. I even came back later in the day to work with my clay again. It had already dried a bit so a creative art student showed me how to apply just enough moisture to be able to form it again. I became very invested in this clay. I could only imagine how G-d must feel in his multi-millennium investment in the Jewish people in trying to form them into an exemplary nation.

My Yom Kippur evening was so much more meaningful because of this chance to “imitate G-d” in the art room. Many students throughout different Nach classes also expressed how this project enhanced their Yom Kippur experience. Students said how they really understood Yirmiyahu 18 in a deeper and richer way, and many commented how excited they were to say the piyyut in shul. One of Mrs. Besser’s students even said that it changed his understanding of the entire Yom Kippur when he realized that all the davening is really about our relationship with Hashem.

In my class today, the prophecy and project led to a rich discussion comparing and contrasting Jeremiah’s vision with the Yom Kippur Piyut. In both sources, the יוצר, the Potter, is G-d. However, the question that was discussed is who is the חומר, the clay.

In the Piyut, the answer is obvious. The clay is each individual member of the Jewish people. We are the clay. We are totally dependent on G-d who molds and shapes our lives and sometimes even our very actions. For this reason, we plead with G-d on Yom Kippur night to look to his ברית, the everlasting covenant first made with Avraham at the ברית בין הבתרים, the covenant between the parts, and later reaffirmed at Har Sinai to all of the Children of Israel and not to look to our יצר, our evil inclination which has caused us to sin and stumble.

However, in Jeremiah’s prophecy the identity of the clay is not as clear. At first glance, it seems to describe the Jewish people. But after a more careful analysis, one student said that it was really the destiny of the Jewish people, the prophetic vision of the future that is the clay. G-d can form this vision and transform this vision from bad to good based on our actions. In this case, the prophecy does not speak to the Lowliness of Man like the Piyut but to the Majesty of Man, a theme that was the focus of our Teshuva program this year. Humanity is so great that based on our good choices, we can actually cause G-d the Potter to, so to speak, change his mind and reform the clay to make a better tomorrow than originally predicted. In Jeremiah, this works both ways. Not only can G-d reform the evil prophecy to good based on our Teshuva but he can also transform a good prophecy to bad based on our bad decisions. It is all up to us.

In a few months, after the clay has been given its final form in the kiln and the students have painted their creations, I hope that we can have some type of presentation to show our works. However, I fear what will befall my personal creation considering what is yet to occur in chapter 19 of Jeremiah. Stay tuned.

-By Rabbi Tzvi Pittinsky
Nach Teacher and Director of Educational Technology

(Cross-posted on Frisch Nach Blog)